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Chéri

Choreography and direction Martha Clarke, text Tina Howe
Signature Theatre
Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke's Chéri Credit: Joan Marcus courtesy of Signature Theater
Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke's Chéri Credit: Joan Marcus courtesy of Signature Theater
Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke's Chéri Credit: Joan Marcus courtesy of Signature Theater
Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke's Chéri Credit: Joan Marcus courtesy of Signature Theater
Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke's Chéri Credit: Joan Marcus courtesy of Signature Theater
Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke's Chéri Credit: Joan Marcus courtesy of Signature Theater

Having retired from dancing in 2007 aged forty-four, six years later, when she appeared in Martha Clarke’s cross-media production of Chéri at New York’s Signature Theatre, Alessandra Ferri’s return proved she was not finished with it yet.

The production ought to be called Léa, after a role that could have been tailor-made for her. She is the heart of the dance drama. As confirmed in Wayne McGregor’s recent Woolf Works, she can spin gold out of straw.

I wonder whether Martha Clarke had Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, centred on a love affair not unlike Colette’s 1920 Chéri, continued in Le Fin de Chéri (1926), in mind when she created this sixty-five-minute miniature for Ferri and Herman Cornejo, former and present principals with ABT.

Old enough to be his mother, retired courtesan Léa, forty-nine, is having an affair with spoilt shallow Chéri, twenty-four. In fact, she is a close friend of his mother’s who styles herself respectably as Madame Peloux, though she too was once a high-class courtesan.

Chéri, ‘the son of a tart’, has led a dissolute Parisian life, he is no angel, he knows the facts of life. A ‘James Dean’ caught between the two women, between the mother and the independent woman, little does he realize how ill they have prepared him, ‘the child’, for life.

The First World War turns him into a shadow of his former self, whilst Léa becomes a matronly figure he barely recognizes. He kills himself aged only thirty, realizing nothing will be better than those few years they had together. He really did love her, but existentialism wins. He is the loser. The tragedy is his not hers.

That is the book. The ballet dwells on Léa—who wouldn't with Ferri in the role—on her age worries, on their summer-autumn romance. In swirling pas de deux and anguished solos, in sensual passionate embrace, in broad brush strokes, the trajectory of a love affair with all its conflicting emotions is laid bare—his careless vanity, her inevitable anxiety.

With comment and narration from the mother… Francesca Annis in faux French accent (is it strictly necessary?) delivers the grand lady bitchy asides (text by Tina Howe), the "hostile intimacy of light women" that Colette talks about—in what could be a psychological ménage a trois. Intrusive woman.

David Zinn’s set and costumes design are exquisitely belle époque: Léa in shift and silk red robe, sunlight (lighting Christopher Akerlind) on a grand room, tall doors and high ceiling, a grand piano with pianist Sarah Rothenberg attached, a bed in an alcove, table, chair, and two Louis Seize mirrors, in which Léa examines her face and body for signs of aging. Ferri has no worries on that score.

In the intimate Linbury space, every mood that passes like a cloud or a ray of sunshine across Ferri’s face is visible. A superb actor-dancer, willow slender and supple, with beautiful feet, shiny lustrous black hair, expressive eyes, who wouldn't fall for her…

Colette has Chéri 'pirouette about'; Cornejo on the other hand has few pirouettes, little to do but lift and spin Léa round, pin her against the wall in sexual desire, wrap her around his body, make love to her on the bed with youthful ardour.

Beautiful to look at, with Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, a Wagner Elegie, as the contemporary with Colette music-scape subtext, two very good actor-dancers, solos that have them bouncing off the walls, and yet, and yet… Impressionistic images of a fin de siècle Paris, impressionistic love, Chéri feels like a delicious appetite-whetting hors d’oeuvre. But what an hors d'oeuvre.

He plays with her pearls, coveting them—pearls that will never lose their beauty, as we must. “You were unique only for … a time” Léa tells Chéri in the book. Only for a time are we whisked away in generic wistful expressions of love and despair. An ageless dance drama, art mirroring life, life mirroring art, pouf and it is gone.

Reviewer: Vera Liber